Analyzing Plato's Arguments: Plato and Platonism

In J. Klagge & N. Smith (eds.), Methods of Interpreting Plato and his Dialogues. Oxford University Press (1992)
The historian of philosophy often encounters arguments that are enthymematic: they have conclusions that follow from their explicit premises only by the addition of "tacit" or "suppressed" premises. It is a standard practice of interpretation to supply these missing premises, even where the enthymeme is "real," that is, where there is no other context in which the philosopher in question asserts the missing premises. To do so is to follow a principle of charity: other things being equal, one interpretation is better than another just to the extent that the one produces a better argument than the other. We show that this principle leads to paradoxical conclusions, including the following: there is no objectively correct interpretation of any real enthymeme found in the text of a major philosopher; an interpreter will not regard a real enthymeme of a major philosopher as adequately interpreted until he has found a way of reading it that makes it into a good argument; every classical philosopher is infallible and omniscient; major philosophers never disagree. These conclusions are preposterous, but there are indications that they are in fact being reached, as we show by means of a case study of recent scholarship on Plato's Third Man Argument. To avoid the overinterpretation and anachronism that result from the unrestrained use of the principle of charity, one must employ a counterbalancing principle of parsimony: to seek the simplest explanation for the text under discussion. We study the role of the principle of parsimony by means of a mathematical case study, involving the suppressed premises in Euclid's Elements. Here the principle of parsimony plays a larger role than it does in the interpretation of philosophical texts, leading to a sharper distinction between Euclid's geometry and Euclidean geometry than we find between Plato and Platonism. We conclude by comparing two models of interpretation, which we call prospective and retrospective. Although the prospective model of interpretation leads to Platonism rather than to Plato, we argue that it still has a place in Platonic scholarship.
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